Main Engine Cut Off

Thank You to November Supporters!

Very special thanks to the 470 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off for the month of November. MECO is entirely listener- and reader-supported, and it’s your support keeps this blog and podcast going, growing, and improving, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 36 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Brandon, Matthew, Simon, Lauren, Melissa, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Ryan, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, and seven anonymous executive producers.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to help support Main Engine Cut Off, join the crew of supporters and producers! Don’t forget about Headlines, the extra weekly podcast episode that goes out to all supporters at the $3+ level. If you want to try out an episode to see what it’s all about before signing up, I recently put one of the shows into the main podcast feed.

There are other ways to help support, too: head over to the shop and buy yourself a shirt or a pair of Rocket Socks, tell a friend, or post a link to something I’m writing or talking about on Twitter or in your favorite subreddit. Spreading the word is an immense help to an independent creator like myself.

Turns Out NROL-101 Launched Something New to Somewhere Weird

Dr. Marco Langbroek has been tracking USA 310, the satellite deployed on the NROL-101 launch, and it turns out it went to an 11,000 kilometer orbit at 58° inclination:

I wrote about this mission in an earlier post. Initially, we thought that this satellite was perhaps a new SDS and would be launched into HEO (a 63-degree inclined 'Molniya orbit'). Subsequent observations of a fuel vent by the Centaur upper stage seen from the western USA four hours after launch did not seem to fit this, and made us speculate whether the payload perhaps was something new and went into a 58 degree inclined MEO (see the discussion at the bottom of this previous post).

The orbit of USA 310 is decidedly odd. There have never been classified launches in such an orbit before. One commercial object was launched in a somewhat similar orbit (the orbital inclination is lower), the first (and only) of an ill-fated commercial communications network in MEO: ICO F2 (2001-026A) launched in 2001.

Read his full post for images, graphs, and speculation on what the payload could be.

Falcon 9 Fleet Leader Now at 7 Flights

The most recent Starlink mission was flown using Falcon 9 first stage B1049, which has now launched and landed 7 times—launching Telstar 18 Vantage, an Iridium flight, and then 5 batches of Starlink satellites (one of which had 3 Planet satellites on board). SpaceX is well on the way to the often-quoted 10-use milestone which has been a long-standing target of Falcon 9 reusability.

A funny note I brought up in the most recent Off-Nominal episode with Eric Berger: this first stage booster specifically has launched 252 satellites to orbit, which is more than any single company except SpaceX has operating in orbit.

Chang’e-5 Has Entered Lunar Orbit, Potentially Going for Landing Tomorrow

After a successful launch last week from Wenchang, Chang’e-5 completed its outbound leg of its trip and has settled into lunar orbit.

Andrew Jones is the person to follow if you want to keep up with this mission. And I recommend you do, because it’s about to get even more exciting: it appears that they’ll be going for a landing tomorrow, Sunday, November 29 at 20:30 UTC.

Most of what we know about the mission is coming from unofficial sources doing all sorts of sleuthing to suss out whatever they can. One particularly cool example is a video that was downlinked and decoded by independent satellite trackers last week, showing a solar panel shining in the sunlight while the spacecraft was headed towards the Moon.

Let’s hope we see some more official information during the landing attempt tomorrow. As always with China, I won’t count on it, but they did have pretty good live coverage of the launch, so maybe there’s a shot.

Episode T+174: SpaceX Crew-1 Kicks Off New Era for ISS

SpaceX Crew-1 successfully launched and docked last week, kicking off a new era of the ISS. It’s a good time to zoom out and look at the ISS program overall, and what it means for the future of space development.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 36 executive producers—Brandon, Matthew, Simon, Lauren, Melissa, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Ryan, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, and seven anonymous—and 430 other supporters.


The Show

Orbit Fab’s First Fuel Depot to Launch in 2021, Which Just Sounds Like Marketing Until You Realize That Marketing is Really Important

Debra Werner, for SpaceNews, on Orbit Fab signing a launch agreement with Spaceflight:

Under the agreement, Orbit Fab’s first operational fuel depot, Tanker-001 Tenzing, will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 as early as June 2021. Tanker-001 Tenzing will store a green propellant in sun synchronous orbit to refuel other spacecraft, Orbit Fab CEO Daniel Faber told SpaceNews.

“We’re building the world’s first operational satellite fuel depot,” Faber said. “This helps us solve the chicken and egg problem. No one is buying fuel in orbit because no one is selling it. We built an egg.”

Orbit Fab has a $3 million contract with the US Air Force to flight qualify their Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI):

Orbit Fab’s Tanker-001 Tenzing scheduled to launch on a Spaceflight’s Sherpa-FX orbital transfer vehicle will be housed in an Astro Digital satellite based on its Corvus-XL bus.

Brian Cooper, Astro Digital lead systems engineer, said by email the mission is a good example of Astro Digitals mission-as-a-service business because alongside Tanker-001 Tenzing, the satellite will house a pair of Accion Systems  TILE2 thrusters.

It’s easy to shrug off the marketing of this as their “first operational fuel depot” because they’re flying with a good bit of funding as a pathfinder mission for their hardware.

But for something like a refueling interface that requires adoption by at least a good number of customers for Orbit Fab to find success, marketing is really important.

You want to show prospective customers that you are serious, that you are invested in the hardware, and that you intend to provide services into the future, when customers would then rely on you for refueling. It’s hard to do that without putting something up in orbit and validating it, and making a big marketing push around launch is an important part of driving that message into customers’ minds.

ExoMars Still Having Parachute Issues

ESA with an update after another round of testing the parachutes for the Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover, due to launch in 2022:

The timeline of the latest test, including extraction and deceleration, went exactly to plan. However, four tears in the canopy of the first main parachute and one in the second main parachute were found after recovery. The damage seemed to happen at the onset of the inflation, with the descent otherwise occurring nominally.